How to Read Mark Theologically
It goes without saying that all too few people acknowledge Jesus Christ’s lordship today, and all too many of those who do acknowledge him do so haltingly and inconsistently. This nagging theological and pastoral problem is not new—it is at the heart of Mark’s Gospel. Although Mark contributes significantly to many areas of biblical and systematic theology, its portrayal of the limited recognition of Jesus, even by his own disciples, is arguably the paramount reason for reading Mark theologically. Mark puzzles his readers by juxtaposing narratives of Jesus’ great miracles with narratives of Jesus’ persecution and crucifixion, which are misunderstood even by his own disciples. This perplexity likely points to Mark’s teaching that the way of suffering that leads to the cross surprisingly turns out to be the path to glory.
Anyone who reads Mark will see that this Gospel is the antithesis of hagiography—idealism and adulation are not found here. In Mark, Jesus is the sole protagonist; the disciples rarely appear in a positive light. My own cursory reading of Mark with this in mind resulted in a list of 25 passages where the disciples’ are portrayed unfavorably. Yet, the disciples are truly committed to Jesus and his kingdom, and Mark assumes that they will remain so in the future. Jesus picks twelve of them and gives them special authority to represent his ministry to renew Israel (3:13–19). His parable of the sower depicts fruitful results from the ongoing proclamation of the kingdom (4:20). He patiently explains his parabolic teaching to his disciples (4:34). They tell him about their current ministry accomplishments (6:30). He promises them rewards for their faithful service (10:28–31), and he reveals that their future ministries will reach all the nations despite much peril (13:9–13; 14:9).
Jesus is the Messiah
The pivotal point of Mark’s Gospel is 8:27–38, where Jesus asks his disciples two questions about his identity. Jesus’ first question concerns who people think he is, and the second who the disciples themselves think he is. The disciples’ response to the first question shows that Jesus was generally perceived to be a prophetic figure. Peter’s response to the second question is direct and simple: “You are the Messiah.” At this point Jesus plainly tells the disciples for the first time that he will be rejected and killed by Israel’s leaders, but will rise again. When Peter objects to this new teaching about the cross, Jesus responds caustically by telling the disciples that they too must take up the cross if they are to expect eschatological reward from God. Jesus’ identity as Messiah is tied directly to the cross. No sooner has Peter acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah than Jesus begins to teach about the necessity of the passion (Mark 8:29–31). This teaching is counter-intuitive for us as well as Peter. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter implies ominous consequences for any person (or theology) that does not link Jesus’ messianic life with his passion (8:32–33). The cross is not simply a place where Jesus once provided personal salvation. The cross is a sacred symbol that forever epitomizes the cruciform life of sacrificial self-denial. Those who claim to be followers of Jesus must take up their own crosses (Mark 8:31–38).
As noted above, key to understanding Mark’s theology is coming to terms with the limited recognition accorded Jesus in this Gospel. As the narrative proceeds, most of the characters do not share the information and point of view regarding Jesus that the narrator has given the reader in 1:1-12. Old Testament prophecy, John the Baptist, and the voice from heaven all testify to Jesus. And yet, from this point onward, recognition of Jesus is seldom and sporadic. Occasionally there are scenes involving healing or other actions that point to Jesus’ true identity (e.g., 1:1:17–18, 20, 22, 27, 29, 32–34, 39, 41), but on these occasions there is no clear testimony to what has been disclosed about Jesus in 1:1. Demons whom Jesus casts out acknowledge he is the holy one of God (1:24) or the Son of God (3:11; 5:7). When Jesus asks his disciples about his identity, Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29). At Jesus’ transfiguration, the Father’s voice from heaven echoes the words that marked Jesus’ baptism (9:7). Blind Bartimaeus addresses Jesus as the son of David as he begs to be healed (10:46–47; cf. Mark 2:25; 11:10; 12:35–37). Finally, the Roman centurion who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion exclaims that Jesus was the Son of God (15:39).
The occasions where Jesus forbids testimony about his identity only add further perplexity to the lack of recognition of Jesus in Mark. This occurs when demons are cast out (1:25, 34; 3:12) and people are healed (1:44–45; 5:19, 43; 7:36; 8:26). Despite Jesus’ attempts to suppress the news about him, he is regularly followed by multitudes of people, leading to Herod Antipas becoming aware of him (6:14). On occasions where his notoriety leads to extreme crowd pressure or danger from the Pharisees, Jesus withdraws to a remote place (1:38, 45; 3:7; 6:31; 7:24; 8:13; 9:30). He teaches his disciples privately at times (4:13, 34; 7;17; 9:28–32; 10:10–11; 13:3) and uses parables to conceal his teaching from the multitudes (4:10–12, 33–34). The strangest silence of all arises when Jesus tells his own disciples not to speak of him (8:30; 9:9), apparently due to their lack of understanding of his office as a suffering, crucified yet risen Messiah (8:30–32; 9:9–13, 30–32; 10:32–34; 14:27–31; 16:6–8).
The abrupt and starkly sad “short ending” of Mark at 16:8 is altogether in keeping with Mark’s depiction of the disciples’ foibles throughout this Gospel. As the chapter unfolds, the disciples have fled, and the women who discover the empty tomb say nothing about Jesus’ resurrection because they are afraid. All the previous occasions when Jesus’ disciples lack compassion, understanding, and obedience come to a head here. They have slept when Jesus struggled over the prospect of the cross (14:32–42), and they have run away when its shadow loomed (14:50). They did not personally witness the agony of Jesus’ crucifixion, so it is fitting that they do not personally experience the joy of his resurrection. Despite their shortcomings, there is, by the grace of God, a glimmer of hope. What if the women get over their fear, come to their senses, and tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee, just as he had promised (14:28)? And what if Peter, last seen weeping after denying the Lord three times (14:54, 66–72), takes heart and sets out afresh to follow Jesus? Despite their shortcomings, there is, by the grace of God, a glimmer of hope. Click To Tweet
Mark leaves these questions open to engage his readers in terms of their own fidelity to Jesus. God has confirmed and endorsed his son the Messiah (1:1, 11; 9:7) by raising him from the dead (16:6). Will Mark’s readers (that’s us!) turn to God in repentance and faith because Jesus’ resurrection clearly demonstrated that God’s kingdom has arrived (1:14-15)? What Mark omits for his unique literary purposes, the remainder of the fourfold Gospel and the book of Acts make clear. The women did indeed tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee (Matt. 28:8; Luke 24:9), and the disciples did in fact meet him there (Matt. 28:16; John 21). The rest is redemptive history.
Mark’s story of Jesus is the story of a sacrificial life leading to a sacrificial death. Even though most of those who encountered Jesus did not follow him, and even though his own followers were deeply flawed, Jesus faithfully carried out his divine mission, and his first followers did likewise. Mark’s traditional mentor Peter, no doubt aware of his own flaws, understood this: “If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you and example for you to walk in his steps” (1 Peter 3:20–21). God chooses to use even deeply flawed people as cruciform agents of his kingdom. Grasping this reality intellectually and enacting it pastorally is the paramount reason for reading Mark theologically.